Tuberculosis killed one out of nine people in Columbus in the early 1900s.
In 1902, it took the life of my 40-year-old great-great-grandmother, Mariann Corcoran O’Connor, who was both the child and the wife of Irish immigrants. Three of her five young children — Mamie, John and Patrick — had already succumbed to tuberculosis. (You can read more of their story here.)
People were understandably fearful of tuberculosis, which was also known as consumption or the white plague. The sick poor were most at risk, since they could not afford the nutritious food and medical care that they needed to survive. Their plight became the cause of Carrie Nelson Black, whose own loss of her 20-year-old sister to tuberculosis in 1874 prompted her to assume what she saw as her civic responsibility: caring for those who were less fortunate and improving the state of health in Columbus.
Mrs. Black was the subject of this year’s Friends of Nursing History lecture, which Joanne Spoth, president and CEO of The Breathing Association, gave recently at the Ohio State University’s Medical Heritage Center as part of its History of the Health Sciences lecture series.
In 1898, Mrs. Black said goodbye to her husband, Franklin County Probate Judge Samuel L. Black (who also was mayor of Columbus from 1897 to 1898), and their three children; left their elegant home that once stood at 1000 Bryden Road; and embarked on a journey to Chicago and Boston to study nursing care. She returned to Columbus with a nurse to begin caring for the sick poor and founded the Instructive District Nurses Association, the Columbus Health Department’s first home nursing service. That association is now known as LifeCare Alliance.
Mrs. Black’s humanitarian efforts continued in 1901, when she became the director of the Ohio Society for the Prevention of Tuberculosis, now known as the Ohio Public Health Association. In 1906, she traveled to Boston, New York and Chicago to visit tuberculosis dispensary services in order to discover best practices she could model in Columbus. That same year, she founded the Columbus Society for the Prevention and Control of Tuberculosis to provide nutrition, medical care and sanatorium services to people who could not afford proper medical care. Its first meeting was held at the Chittenden Hotel.
Samuel Prescott Bush, the founder of Buckeye Steel Castings and the ancestor of two Bush presidents, was a founding trustee of the Columbus Tuberculosis Society. He chaired its Sanitation Committee to improve the sanitary conditions in Columbus businesses as a way to decrease the spread of tuberculosis.
In those days, isolation, rest and spending prolonged periods out in the fresh air, regardless of the weather, were the only known ways to cure tuberculosis. To prevent the spread of the disease, nurses with the Columbus Tuberculosis Society visited the homes of those most susceptible to the disease, bringing milk and eggs to patients who had the best chances of survival.
In 1906, the society opened a free tuberculosis dispensary at 40 S. Third St. to provide medical care to people needing consultation and treatment. Although the building was razed to make way for the parking lot to the south of the former Columbus Dispatch headquarters, an historical marker was dedicated there on December 11, 2006.
Separated from their loved ones to protect them from infection, tuberculosis patients were lonely. In 1907, Mrs. Black urged Franklin County officials to build a camp with the first tuberculosis cottages in the Glen Echo neighborhood of Columbus at the north end of Summit Street. In 1913, the camp moved to Minerva Park on Cleveland Avenue. The Franklin County Tuberculosis Sanatorium opened the following year.
In 1913, Mrs. Black founded the Open Air School at 2571 Neil Avenue, near Hudson Street, for children who were either predisposed to tuberculosis or were living in homes where there was at least one case of the disease. To take advantage of the healing powers of fresh air, the school’s windows were opened year-round, and children were given hats and hooded woolen coats to wear.
Mrs. Black bought 20 acres of land on Brice Road in 1931, and began construction on Nightingale Cottage, a home for children who had been exposed to tuberculosis. A chest examination, immunization against diphtheria and a vaccination for smallpox were required for admission. The Columbus Board of Education provided a teacher, and a school schedule was arranged so that children could continue their education while receiving nutritious food, plenty of rest, fresh air and exercise. Nightingale Cottage was demolished in August 1973 to make way for Interstate 71.
Before her death in 1936, Mrs. Black had the satisfaction of knowing that the rates of death from tuberculosis in Columbus had dropped to one out of 20 people, thanks to her efforts.
Since then, the Columbus Tuberculosis Society has continued Mrs. Black’s cause to assist the underserved. At first, only stethoscopes could be used to diagnosis tuberculosis, but other ways began to be developed. It introduced tuberculosis skin tests in Franklin County schools and began a mass screening program with a mobile clinic in the 1930s; followed with portable chest x-ray services and antibiotics in the 1950s. As tuberculosis became controllable, it expanded its programs to focus on diseases resulting from tobacco use; emphysema; lung cancer; and chronic lung conditions like asthma and bronchitis. Undergoing several different name changes along the way, the organization is now known as The Breathing Association. Its programs provide the poor with medical supplies, prescription medications and assistance paying for home heating and cooling through the Home Energy Assistance Program.
The program also gave me an opportunity to learn more about the Medical Heritage Center, the special collections library of OSU’s Health Sciences Library that preserves, promotes and provides instruction about the history of health care in central Ohio through rare books, archival collections and medical artifacts.
Through May 15, the library hosted Every Necessary Care and Attention: George Washington and Medicine, a traveling exhibition from the National Library of Medicine.
Popular 17th-century books of home health remedies and herbal treatments, such as The Family Physician, and the House Apothecary and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, were a part of the Washingtons’ personal library. He also had a medicine chest containing glass bottles, a set of scales, and a mortar and pestle.
Washington’s soldiers were at risk for ailments like dysentery, septic wounds, smallpox and camp fever. To protect them, Washington made decisions about food storage, placement of latrines, disposal of animal carcasses, and general provisions for clothing and shelter on the battlefield. Throughout the Revolutionary War, he carried a bottle of musk, used in perfumes and medicines.
At Mount Vernon, he ensured that slaves receive every necessary care and attention when they were unwell. A dental scaler set is said to have been used to clean their teeth. Take a closer look at Washington’s traveling dental kit, circa 1795, with a container for tooth powder, tooth brush, tongue scraper, and traveling case.
Both George and Martha Washington wore spectacles for reading as they got older. They also wore false teeth in their later years. This set of Washington’s dentures, circa 1790-1799, are made of human teeth, cow teeth, and elephant ivory, held on a lead base with brass wires and steel springs. For more on these famous dentures, click here.
The Medical Heritage Center is located on the fifth floor of the Ohio State University Health Sciences Library, in Prior Hall, at 376 W. 10th Ave.